Amidst Criticism of Its Choices, Academy Brings Together Foreign Language Nominees
by Susan Buzzelli
Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise and Harvey Weinstein were not the only Oscar hopefuls snubbed by the Academy this year. Much to the chagrin of critics, film festival audiences and diplomats, supposed foreign language shoe-ins “Osama,” “Goodbye Lenin!” and “The Return” lost out to a relatively obscure set of nostalgic dramas about youth, honor and World War II. Of the five nominees, Canada’s “The Barbarian Invasions,” the Czech Republic’s “Zelary,” The Netherlands’ “Twin Sisters,” Japan’s “The Twilight Samurai,” and Sweden’s “Evil,” only Denys Arcand’s witty, weepy “Invasions” won wide-spread acclaim prior to the February Oscar nominations (and would go on to win the Oscar on Sunday).
At an Academy symposium Saturday morning in Beverly Hills that showcased the foreign language nominees, producer Mark Johnson, Chair of the Foreign Language Film Committee, obliquely countered criticisms of the committee he has chaired for the last five years.
“We have just seen 56 movies in a period of slightly over two months and there are at least a dozen directors who could, and probably should, be sitting here in this auditorium,” he said. “Coming up with a slate of five films was extremely difficult this year. And given the eclectism and vitality of the movies, each one of us probably misses the exclusion of one film or another.”
Actress Barbara Pilavin, one of the 300 members of the Foreign Language Film Committee who viewed the films between October and January, lamented the absence of Afghanistan’s bid – Siddiq Barmack‘s “Osama” – from the lineup. “It is one film in particular that I felt, from the day I saw it, should have been nominated,” she told indieWIRE. “It was a brilliant, brilliant piece of work from many points of view – the story, the filming of it – you could smell the smells – and the editing. It had all the right things.”
The long-time Academy member disagreed, however, that the committee is in need of an overhaul. “I think the foreign film committee, from the beginning of the process to the end, works better than any other committee we have. They are very difficult to operate, but this group is run with an iron hand,” she said. Pilavin managed to see 52 of the record-breaking 56 foreign language entries that included, for the first time, work from Palestine, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
The two-hour symposium steered clear of Academy politics to focus on the stories behind the five films that made the cut. An older, well-dressed crowd filled the 1,000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater to watch clips and hear what directors Denys Arcand, Ondrej Trojan, Ben Sombogaart, Yoji Yamada and Mikael Hafström had to say about their films, scriptwriting, financing and, of course, Hollywood. Several of the films’ producers, stars, editors and financial backers also attended the event.
Though films in the foreign language category tend to have little in common, this year’s nominations share a similar, straightforward style and overarching theme, Johnson said.
He pointed out that all five films “about an underdog Samurai, a dying man, twins torn apart by war, a love affair forged by war and a boarding school rebel” exhibit “a common fixation with memory. All five of these films are set in the past. Even though “The Barbarian Invasions” is set in the 21st century, its characters live in the past.”
Arcand, who has been nominated twice before in the foreign language category, for “Decline of the American Empire” and “Jesus of Montreal,” and is also nominated for best original screenplay, said that “Invasions” was triggered by real events.
“It was based on the personal experience of losing both of my parents, who died very long and prolonged deaths – cancer – in the hospital,” he said. “I struggled with this idea for a long time, not getting anywhere, until I had the idea of using the characters from a film I made 18 years ago called ‘The Decline of the American Empire.’ Once I decided to use these characters, it was pretty easy to write the script.” He said he reunited with “Decline’s” cast and crew to film “Invasion.”
Trojan found inspiration for “Zelary” in an unpublished, autobiographical novel written by a rural schoolteacher when the Czech Republic was part of the Soviet Bloc. The film, about a young, World War II nurse and resistance fighter forced to flee to a hillbilly mountain town with one of her patients, made the novelist, Jozova Hanule, an overnight celebrity. “She is 85-years old and, because of the film, she has been famous ever since she was 84 years old,” Trojan said through an interpreter.
Ben Sombogaart‘s “Twin Sisters,” about two sisters torn apart by war, is based on Tessa de Loo’s best-selling Dutch novel “Twins.” Sombogaart said he was drawn to universal themes running through the story of sisters torn apart by war. “It is about what political systems and war can do to people, people who belong to each start hating each other. This struck me and that is why I wanted to make the film,” he said.
Mikael Hafstrom, the director of “Evil,” also found inspiration for his film in a beloved Swedish book. His film, about cruel hazing rituals in a 1950s boarding school, is based on a novel by Jan Guillou, Sweden answer’s the “Catcher in the Rye” — that several directors have tried to tackle before him.
“I started to get a little nervous during the filming when I actually realized how popular this book was. There could be a lot of disappointment out there,” he said. “I think that we managed to take the soul out of the book and make a film that could stand on its own legs.”
Yamada, a veteran Japanese director best-known for his comedic film series “Tora-san,” directed “The Twilight Samurai” for very different reasons. “I never made a film that showed someone killed on screen and I was hoping that one day I could make a film in which, at the very end of the film, during the climax, two fighters would fight against each other for their lives,” he said through his interpreter.
The star of the film, Hiroyuki Sanada, a master swordsman, also appeared in Hollywood’s latest samurai flick – “The Last Samurai.” Yamada said enlisting a skilled swordsman was essential to the integrity of his film. “There are many samurai films made in Japan, but many of them are fakes. So I wanted to tell a real samurai story without stunt men,” he said.
Four of the five nominees revealed that winning an Oscar nod guarantees both a spot in the Hollywood limelight and a slot in American theaters. “Barbarian Invasions,” distributed by Miramax, is the only film on the slate that has appeared in U.S. theaters so far. Miramax has also laid claim to “Twin Sisters,” Sony Classics has snatched up “Zelary” and “The Twilight Samurai” has won over Empire Films. Release dates, however, are still up in the air and “Evil” doesn’t have a distributor, yet.
Trojan suggested that Sony is waiting to see what happens on Sunday before committing to a release date for “Zelary.” “I just called them and they told me to call back on Monday.”
Despite the frustrations of working with the Hollywood machine, all five panelists admitted that, if the right project came along, they would gladly work in Los Angeles, primarily because of the large talent pool. “If Johnny Depp can’t do it, Brad Pitt is there,” Arcand said.
He said that there is a drastic shortage of talent in Canada. “Very often in Montreal I have only one actor who I have to beg and wait for. I have to juggle the schedule like crazy because there is only one person who can play the part. Here, you can have ten people who are equally fantastic,” he said.
Arcand said he has already been offered, and turned down, dozens of Hollywood scripts, including “White Men Can’t Jump.” “All of the good scripts go to Spielberg and Scorsese and the bad ones were sent to this obscure French-Canadian director,” he joked.
Trojan has the lowest Hollywood aspirations on the panel. “There are a lot of good actors and filmmakers in the Czech Republic, so if Hollywood would accept me and the people I am used to working with, well, then I don’t see any problems,” he said, laughing.
“I don’t go to bed every night with the thought that if I don’t make a movie in Hollywood, my life is over,” he added. “But I do like it here.”